Friday, December 21, 2018

Anatomy and the Masters

Leonardo da Vinci, "Skull," ink, 1489
One of the areas of overlap between my current occupation as a realist painter and a previous one is human anatomy. A working knowledge of the intricacies of the human frame and form is essential for the figurative and portrait painter, of course, but it's also essential for people like cartoonists, game designers, storyboard artists, and animators of course. Art schools now teach courses in anatomy for artists, and there seem to be endless books for human anatomy for artists. But it wasn't always so, partly because anatomy wasn't well-known earlier than the beginning of the Renaissance, and partly owing to the difficult in diffusion of knowledge before the 15th century.

Leonardo da Vinci, "Arm bones," ink ca 1510
During those years of renewal and exploration, masters of sculpture and painting began to explore human anatomy personally. Two of the titans of the era were contemporaries: Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarotti; and each studied anatomy seriously and in depth. Both men apprenticed with masters who were dedicated to the understanding of human structure.

Leonardo da Vinci, "Female Torso," ink, ca 1510
Leonardo began his investigations of anatomy in the late 1480s, and began a notebook he headed "On the Human Figure," though for a long while it only contained drawings of the skull (see above). In the winter of 1507 though, Leonardo wrote that a man of 100 died and he "made an anatomy" (dissected) him to see the cause of death. In the next half decade or so he did more dissections and studied anatomy very seriously, filling pages of his notebook, now in the Windsor Castle collection. In that famous book he collects drawings of muscles, bones, the respiratory and circulatory systems, even important structures of the reproductive tract. It is clear from looking at his drawings that Leonardo was informing himself of the latest findings in anatomy. Leonardo was actively pursuing his own experiences and information and intended to eventually publish those studies (a number were being published in those decades) but did not, nor did his heirs. The amazing thing about da Vinci is the quality of his drawing coupled with the quality of his questions and observations.

Michelangelo, "Leg muscles," rec chalk
Michelangelo, "Back and hip muscles," red chalk
In contrast, Michelangelo studied anatomy with the eye of an artist. Michelangelo began studying anatomy while apprenticed to Ghirlandao, in Florence. As a sculptor, he was vitally interested in the structure of the body, though his interest was focused not so much on internal organs as on muscles and structure. And unlike da Vinci, Michelangelo was not accumulating material for a treatise. He was intent on improving his artistic understanding. It is well-known from biographical sources that Michelangelo dissected cadavers with permission (as did Leonardo), and he is said later to have wanted to publish his anatomic findings but dissection was disgusting to him. (Recall that there was no embalming in the 16th century.) Michelangelo himself destroyed many of his drawings, particularly anatomic ones, and the ones that survive seem to be predominantly musculoskeletal drawings.

To be sure, the experience of these two masters is atypical. An artist certainly doesn't need to dissect a body to draw one accurately. On the other hand, if one is to draw and paint our fellow humans accurately, it's crucial to learn the anatomy of the body. Classical art education has traditionally included anatomy, and continues to do so.

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